Last weekend I was in Helsinki for the XXI European Congress of the Young European Federalists (also known by the French acronym JEF, Jeunes Européens fédéralistes). The Congress, which meets every two years in a different European city, is the highest decision-making body of the organisation. It elects the President, two Vice Presidents and twenty members to its Federal Committee whose mandates will now last until 2013.
Helsinki was an interesting choice for the Congress. I’d never been to Finland before, nor to any other country in the region, but my Finnish friends had made me want to visit for a number of years. Helsinki has this kind of enigmatic quality to it and is not like any other European city I’ve been to. My first impressions were that it was clean, well organised with a great infrastructure and safe. I felt safer walking alone down the street after dark than I ever have at home in the UK. Free unsecured wi-fi was everywhere, which truly was a godsend. I was also lucky that Finns are so great at English, as my Finnish is strictly limited to ‘kiitos’ (thank you) and ‘moi moi’ (hello). The architecture was a diverse mix of neo-classical, art nouveau, gothic, and even what I would describe as ‘communist-style’, with very square, imposing old-fashioned looking concrete buildings popping up in some places.
During downtime from the Congress, I had the chance to see a bit of the city. Helsinki Cathedral, painted in a stark white and with a huge green dome, is simply stunning. The view from the cathedral is equally impressive, looking out onto the harbour and the Gulf of Finland. A huge, beautiful golden organ sits inside the cathedral, and when I visited I sat and listened to a choir rehearsing hymns in Finnish. It was very peaceful.
Helsinki harbour is also an interesting sight. Huge ferries and ships sail from here daily, taking passengers from Helsinki to neighbouring Tallinn, Stockholm and beyond. The city didn’t feel overly ‘touristy’, unlike say London or Paris but then again it is also much smaller, with about 500,000 inhabitants. The harbour did have a small market selling souvenirs, including not just the usual fridge magnets and postcards, but also rabbit fur earmuffs and bottle openers made from reindeer antlers!
Helsinki is not really a budget destination and the £/€ exchange rate is always less than favourable for Brits, but it is possible to spend a weekend there on a limited budget. The city was small enough to navigate on foot and there are plenty of coffee shops to grab a cup of tea or a sandwich. I was totally intrigued by the number of people I saw marching down the street in hiking gear with Nordic walking poles and really tried hard not to stare!
During the last night of my trip I was lucky enough to have a real Finnish experience and visited a sauna. Many bars and pubs in the city have their own private sauna for hire, and my friends had booked this one out for the evening. It was bliss, just to sit and talk and relax in that hot, sticky wooden box for fifteen minutes while you sweat the day away.
I can highly recommend Helsinki and would love to visit the city again. It would also be great to plan a longer trip and see more of the country, especially as it is so far from Britain. The flight time was just under three hours, and direct flights are available from Gatwick through Norwegian airlines (who were also amazing – the best budget carrier I have ever flown with!).